My back pages: Magna Carta’s Chris Simpson interviewed

Magna Carta - Chris Simpson, Glen Stuart, Davey Johnstone.
Magna Carta - Chris Simpson, Glen Stuart, Davey Johnstone.

His band Magna Carta has sold eight million albums. he’s known everyone from David Bowie to Princess Margaret and played live in 98 countries.

But, as GRAHAM CHALMERS discovered, wherever Chris Simpson goes he remains a man of the Dales, as his brilliant new album Fields of Eden shows.

“So I was with George Harrison and Ringo Star in an Italian restaurant and they were saying. . .”

I can hear the water lapping gently outside the narrowboat Chris Simpson calls his home part of the year as he takes me on a trip down memory lane.

The veteran leader of prog-folk-rock band Magna Carta appears to have worked with, or rubbed shoulders with, more famous faces in his time than the late Andy Warhol.

Take, Seasons. A million-selling album for Magna Carta in 1970, the mere mention of its name inspires tales of Gus Dudgeon who produced it, Tony Visconti, who arranged it and Rick Wakeman who contributed keyboards.

Oh, and one more name, Chris chips in.

“I’d written the whole thing on the back of a cornflakes packet one night when I was living in London as a sort of opera of the Dales with a soliloquy and sound effects and everything else.

“David Bowie was around at that time and I played it to him just on guitar. He said it was one of the most beautiful things he’d ever heard.”

Staring at the swans floating by on this beautiful stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal near Skipton while chain smoking from a packet of Pall Mall, if anyone deserves to drop a few names, it’s Chris.

Once described by the Melody Maker’s Colin Irwin as “the English Paul Simon”, the softly-spoken but passionate Chris has seen and done it all in a career spanning the globe over nearly five decades.

Born in Harrogate with family connections to Hampsthwaite, Pateley Bridge and Ripley, Chris may have played live in 98 countries but this restless traveller always finds his way back to his beloved Dales.

“My childhood was in a derelict house at Swincliffe. We never had a telly so I had a very literary upbringing. I read desperately. But I always hated towns. I still hate towns.”

This master songwriter and natural born story teller has lured me here on a bright spring day in the rolling hills near Skipton with a simple premise.

He says he’s going to play me something old and something new.

It seems two exciting new releases are imminent – a live recording of the magical night in 1971 Magna Carta played their Seasons album at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and a brand new collection of songs, The Fields of Eden which picks up, partly, on some of the themes of that time.

Wearing a T-shirt which fails to hide the scars of an operation last year on his left arm, Chris pops the first CD in his onboard music system, sits back with a strong cup of tea and lets the music flow.

To these ears, the sweeping arrangements by John Dankworth, gorgeous harmonies and dazzling contributions on guitar and sitar and much else by multi-instrumentalist Davey Johnstone, sound remarkably fresh - musical gold from a more innocent era.

Then a three-piece featuring original members Chris and Glen Stuart plus Johnstone, who later left the band to become Elton John’s guitarist of choice, Chris recalls that they’d first unveiled this ambitious rural song suite in the low-key atmospherics of St Martin’s in the Field Folk Club to stunned silence.

Now Chris and Magna Carta had to perform centre stage at the most prestigious venue in Britain with a bunch of top classical musicians behind them and a packed audience of thousands in front.

“John Dankworth had gone through the whole album at Ronnie Scott’s with us on piano so he could work out the charts for the gig.

“He told me my songs on the album were using half bars where they shouldn’t be but somehow it still worked.

“At that point I had to own up that I didn’t read music. So John scribbled a few notes for me with a biro and said he’d give me the nod when needed at the Royal Albert Hall.

“It was terrifying on the night itself but brilliant. The ovations went on forever.”

Ostensibly, the young Chris had come to the capital in the early 1960s to go to university but he’d quickly been introduced to London’s burgeoning folk and blues scene by friend Mike Leavy.

After the success of the band’s second album, Seasons, Magna Carta followed that up with another hit ‘LP’ - Songs From Wasties Orchard.

Then came Lord of the Ages, written entirely by Chris with a sleeve design by Roger Dean of Yes fame.

A huge seller in 1973, it’s mix of prog rock, rich harmonies and traditional folk music influences is still referred to this day by Rick Wakeman as “one of the greatest albums of its kind ever made.”

As these things tend to go in the music industry, Chris never saw much financial gain from Lord of the Ages’ 1.5 million sales.

Managerial problems were accompanied by regular rejigs in the band line-up as friends and colleagues came and went in a bewildering fashion. Chris tells me he hasn’t seen one important former member since he left for Australia 40 years ago.

Even his ex-wife Linda, a member of Magna Carta for more than 20 years, followed the familiar route out of the band eventually.

Never one to suffer fools, the older Chris still tends to pronounce judgement. But he also recognises his own part in the Spinal Tap-esque twists and turns of his epic story.

“I’m a very opinionated human being but I’m shy. If I was ever in a club when our music came on, I would have to leave.

“I believe I’m the best at what I do but it’s mixed with colossal self-doubt.”

Sitting amid the rustic charm of the Dales on his floating home dotted with framed photos from his life in music, I really can’t work out why.

Perhaps the last of the over-looked bands, Magna Carta are the only remaining name of genuine importance from the 1970s not to be reassessed and rehabilitated in this era of forever looking back.

Listening to the new album The Fields of Eden recorded at Soundworks studio in Leeds under producer Will Jackson’s guidance with a new line-up, it’s clear the body may be weaker but Chris’s musical powers are stronger than ever.

Deeply reflective, it’s a brilliant album packed with songs which touch the heart and warm the soul.

Just don’t call him ‘folk’!

“We’ve never been a folk act. We play acoustic music. But folk was very big when we started and people just assumed we were.”

Set to premiere it live at Grassington Festival on Saturday, June 14 (less than a week before ex-wife Linda performs her own versions of some Magna Carta songs at the same festival), fans will see a 70-year-old musician who still sees universal truths in a single blade of Yorkshire grass.

Before I leave the narrowboat I ask this ultimate survivor one last question. What did you study at university?

“I did theology.”

As for that George Harrison and Ringo Starr story. . .